Is There Really a Turkish 'Jihad' Against Alcohol?

No, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not waging a jihad on alcohol in Turkey. A response to Kadri Gursel.

al-monitor This photo taken on Jan. 29, 2011, in Ankara, shows protesters drinking alcohol as they demonstrate against new laws banning alcohol sales in the Turkish capital and several Anatolian towns. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages.
Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol


Topics covered

political islam, islamists, islamism, erdogan, alcohol, akp

May 31, 2013

On May 23, fellow Al-Monitor writer Kadri Gursel had a nice piece crowned by a provocative headline: “AKP Wages Jihad Against Alcohol in Turkey.” The rest of the piece did not mention the j-word again, nor did it explain how it exactly fit the issue, but the title was enough to give an impression that Turkey's ruling party was leading an explicitly Islamic campaign against alcohol.

However, none other than the AKP leadership itself has explicitly denied that this was the case. Bulent Arinc, vice prime minister and second after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan within the AKP hierarchy, spoke to the press about the new alcohol regulations of his government, emphasizing:

“About alcohol, religious considerations should be set aside. That is a separate matter. Everybody's outlook on alcohol based on his beliefs are certain. I only respect that in my private life, and I exercise mine. But asserting this concern for everybody, turning this into a law, is not possible in a secular state. What we do is implement the constitutional clause about the protection of the youth and the family.”

In other words, Arinc emphasized that the AKP's alcohol regulations were based not on religious beliefs but on objective concerns about public health, safety and order. Several days later, Erdogan, in a heated if not crude tone, also argued that the fact that religion (in this case, Islam) also condemns alcohol should not be a reason to oppose the regulations on alcohol.

No wonder the AKP spokesmen who defended the new alcohol regulations have referred not to Islamic law, but similar regulations in some European Union member states and the United States. They have also pointed out that Istanbul's Kadikoy district, which is run by the secular People's Republican Party, the AKP's main rival, had also instituted similar regulations some two months ago, due to local complaints about public intoxication.

Other commentators who are more critical of the alcohol regulations, such as Gursel, argue that all such allusions to European regulations on alcohol are deceptive, for Turkey's alcohol consumption is far below the European average. They are certainly right about the numbers. But then the AKP can well argue in return that they want to prevent widespread alcoholism before it becomes a serious issue as in some Western societies.

By noting all this, I am not giving my full support to the AKP's new alcohol regulations. Personally speaking, I am not a fan of "nanny states" which interfere too much in individual lives. Besides that, I have found Erdogan's recent outbursts against "alcoholics" offensive, and have seen his praise of ayran (a yoghurt drink) as the "national drink" as intrusive. His angry and overbearing language only inflames Turkey's culture war and comforts no one other than AKP's hard-core supporters.

However, the AKP should be criticized on realistic grounds, not overheated ones. On that note, I find it a bit exaggerated to label the party as simply “Islamist,” and define its cultural policies with Islamic terms such as “jihad.” I rather see those policies as examples of a “family-focused” moral conservatism that one can see in many other democracies of the world.

Someone who recently underlined this critical nuance is Joost Lagendijk, a veteran Dutch politician who was once the joint chairman of the Turkey-EU Parliamentarians Delegation and is now a keen Turkey observer and interpreter. In his recent piece in Today's Zaman, he argued:

“In order to understand what is happening in Turkey, it is crucial to make a distinction between Islamization on the one hand and the rise of conservative moral principles and standards of behavior on the other.”

According to Lagendijk, the latter phenomenon was a standard Western one as well:

“Almost all of the viewpoints of the AKP on most of the controversial issues (alcohol, abortion, gender equality and homosexuality) are similar to those of other European conservative parties in countries like Poland, Ireland, Portugal, or, for that matter, the Republicans in the US.”

But why it was that important to see the nuance between Islamization and what Lagendijk defines as “illiberal conservatism?” This was his answer:

“Framing the current developments in Turkey as the inevitable rise of Islamism is not only factually wrong — after 10 years of AKP rule, the Turkish state is not and will not be based on Islamic law, and there is no imposition of exclusively Islamic ideas on society — it is also counterproductive and self-defeating. It suggests Islam is the root cause of all the problems in Turkey and that a majority of pious Muslims are slowly taking over the country. It implies there is basically no democratic way to reverse that trend.”

I agree with Lagendijk. I also agree with much of the criticism brought against the AKP these days, such as that the party is getting more and more self-righteous, insensitive or nepotistic. However, most of these problems are unrelated to “Islamism” or Islam itself. They are rather the products of the mundane rules of politics, such as that power corrupts and parties that stay in power for long grow gradually impatient and close-minded.

When it comes to matters relating to Islam, on the other hand, I think that the AKP still is an example of a political movement with conservative Islamic values but which has decided to present those values in a democratic and secular political system. In this sense, it still is, with all its flaws, the best “model” we can find in the whole Muslim world. 

Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a columnist for Turkish newspapers Hurriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish

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